Well, I don’t know what I’d do without Yeats’s Collected Poems
, so although it is a predictable choice here I still have to nominate it for the list. No modern poet takes me more to the place I most want to be taken by poetry. The language and craft in Yeats pull me in every time, I never tire of rereading his poems and I've learned many by heart—even the slurpy early ones, but especially his great poetry from Responsibilities
on, after his cauterizing by Pound. Poems like The Second Coming, Sailing to Byzantium, Easter 1916, The Wild Swans at Coole,
and on and on—they’re permanent places to return to. This is all way too generalized, so I’ll briefly comment on just one of his poems to explain why Yeats is the poet for me. “Byzantium” is an incantation:
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
Talk about semantic density! Imagination, insatiable longing, gravitas, and (pace
the “sensible” postindustrial world) magic—it’s all there. The poem ends:
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
For all the archetypal imagery and fervency, that closing image comes from real life. The dolphins are from Orphic imagery that depicted dolphins as the carriers of souls into and out of this world. At the same time, Yeats says somewhere that the image of the gong came from his hearing fishermen in western Ireland banging on iron sheets to attract fish their nets. Yeats was the whole man: politics and Golden Dawn, real world and dream world—one reason why his Collected
has something for everyone and are an inexhaustible source of insight and pleasure.
I forgot to post the link to the book: it's the standard Collected
, which has some useful notes in it by Richard Finneran.